And you thought she was going to retire.
Just seven months after announcing plans to call it a day and retire a four-decade-strong career in Canada’s travel industry, Louise Gardiner is back – this time devoting her expertise to fostering the success of storefront travel agencies.
The news came Sept. 3, when Gardiner was officially named vice-president of The Agency Solution, a new division of The Travel Agent Next Door (TTAND) that aims to assist small to medium-sized brick and mortar travel agencies by providing them with backend marketing, technology, sales and office tools.
Gardiner will oversee the strategic development and sales of the new project, which was created by TTAND founder and president Flemming Friisdahl.
So, was this whole retirement thing just one big bluff? Hardly.
“Sometimes when you retire, people don’t think you actually mean it. I did mean it,” Gardiner says, meeting with PAX one-on-one at TTAND’s headquarters in downtown Toronto last month.
Retirement made sense...at the time
Prior to announcing her retirement on the first day of 2019, January 1st, Gardiner was holding down a 60-plus hour work week as a senior leader at Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT), a company she first joined in 2004, with some 150 locations under her directorship.
On top of that, about one year prior, near the end of 2017, Gardiner’s husband sadly fell ill after suffering from respiratory failure, a condition which resulted in him undergoing a double-lung transplant.
All this in mind, retirement made sense.
But the allure of waking up each morning with little to no work responsibilities quickly faded.
Gardiner’s husband, fortunately, got better (“He’s golfing twice a week,” she says) and her duties associated with running a family-owned ski shop were alleviated after Gardiner and her husband sold the store to their son.
That’s not to say Gardiner wasn’t staying active in the industry. She was a board member at TICO (a role she held up until this past June) and still, to this day, is treasurer at ACTA.
She has also been a Rotarian for more than 25 years, leading many roles, including President of her local Rotary Club in 2002.
But retirement life wasn’t for her. Not yet.
While she was happy to be at home: “I can’t stay home, I swear to God,” says Gardiner, who lives in Kitchener, ON.
Then Flemming Friisdahl came knocking.
Admitting she’d been approached by other travel companies after announcing her retirement, Gardiner says it was Friisdahl’s vision for The Agency Solution that re-energized her passion for the industry and inspired her to return to work.
“I’m happy to be part of something that is new and exciting,” Gardiner tells PAX. “The Agency Solution is doing wonderful things for independents who need that back-office support.”
Focusing on storefronts
Gardiner is no stranger to the travel agency space.
She started her 40-year career in travel as vice-president of a small agency in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.
Prior to joining CWT, she was vice-president of Tripcentral.ca and the Meissner Travel Group of agencies in her hometown of Kitchener.
READ MORE: TTAND launches brand new division
Among her many duties at CWT, Gardiner implemented the company’s leisure strategy for the Associate Franchise Program in Canada. She oversaw the operations of 140 leisure travel locations that represented $1 billion in sales within Canada.
To say that Gardiner understands the needs of storefront agencies is an understatement.
“We’ve been a changing industry since the early ’90s,” Gardiner says, alluding to the days when airlines first began reducing commissions. “There’s been a lot of changes, and for some [storefront agencies], they feel a weight on their shoulder.”
What Gardiner appreciates The Agency Solution is that it “takes the pain points away” in running a storefront agency and allows owners “to do what they love to do" and continue be successful.
What's the solution?
Storefronts that join The Agency Solution have access to backend support that eliminates costs associated with regulatory fees, E&O insurance, bank fees and merchant fees, TTAND states.
It also allows agencies to lower their accounting, payroll, telephones, toll-free lines, GDS & technology expenses.
“The nice part is that it’s a non-branded solution,” Gardiner says. “You don't have to change your name.”
Operational and marketing tools, such as social media and support, email and print marketing, booking engines and brochures, are all part of the package too.
“[Agency owners] can pick and choose as they like and use the tools in the tool box that they need to be successful,” Gardiner says. “They get best-in-class commission levels, [and] it gives them the work-life balance they haven’t been able to get in the past.”
These are tools TTAND’s network of home-based travel agents – the company’s bread and butter – know well since TTAND first launched in 2014.
But Gardiner says The Agency Solution won’t deviate from what TTAND currently offers its home-based partners, including access to perks from loyal suppliers.
“It’s one hundred per cent all the same,” Gardiner explains. “We’re setting it up in a way that makes sense for an owner, but we don’t want to deviate from the good work Flemming has done in making sure that it’s working well for the business.”
That said, The Agency Solution isn’t for everyone.
“We’re not going after the large agencies in Canada,” Gardiner says, noting the “sweet spot” for potential candidates are small to medium-sized storefronts that produce one to three million in sales and who may have one to four employees.
What direction is TTAND going?
TTAND’s move into the storefront space marks a new chapter for the host-agency that has, since its inception, been solely focused on supporting the home-based sector.
“I don’t see TTAND changing its course,” Gardiner says. “To me, as an industry veteran, [The Agency Solution] validates that travel agencies aren’t going away. We are surviving.”
To that end, Gardiner hints that the storefront agency workforce may, in fact, be shrinking. As a part-time professor at Conestoga College in Kitchener, she says enrollment in the school’s hospitality and tourism program is strong; however, on the retail agency side of things, not so much.
“But there is still a place,” Gardiner says. “There is a viable place for storefronts in the future. There will always be people who want to walk in.”
One possible outcome of The Agency Solution is TTAND serving as a mentor for small to medium-sized storefronts that may, at some point, decide to go home-based or have staff who want to work from home.
“[Owners] might be able to get a network of home-based agents that report to their storefront. It can be a blend,” she says.
A personalized approach
Gardiner, who is bilingual, says The Agency Solution will start work in Ontario and focus on English Canada, but the ultimate plan is to expand its services country-wide.
“We want to offer support in French, but we want to make sure we do it in the right manner. It’s a very personalized approach,” Gardiner says.
She says her sales technique will be to “go out and approach individual owners, leverage my 40 years of experience, talk to them, and set up a relationship.”
With that, Gardiner hopes The Agency Solution will give storefront owners a sense of feeling “re-energized” about the travel industry and selling travel in general.
After all, that same feeling is what inspired Gardiner to get back to business in the first place.
“It’s that passion,” she says. “That’s what I love about it.”
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